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September 14, 1999

Reviewing Reviews

by Ernie Pinson

PIECES OF EIGHT TO CONSIDER FOR DRAMA, MUSIC, ART, AND BOOK REVIEWS

WHAT TO DO
1. Be clear, creative, detailed, concise, precise, kind, objective, unoffending, honest.
2. Blessed be the novice, young, and tenderhearted, for they are easily wounded and unaccustomed to criticism.
3. Your allegiances are in this order: to the public first, your own integrity second, the arts third, performers fourth, artists fifth, producers sixth.
4. Your job is to enlighten, inform, elevate, assess -- not to sneer, cajole, undermine, or demean.
5. Treat all arts equally whether drama, painting, dance, music, sculpture, folk work, opera, or craft.
6. Maintain the public trust at all cost; its belief in your credibility/reliability is absolutely essential.
7. Preserve objectivity at all cost; off stage performers can be your friends; on stage they are artists.
8. Titles are important to catch the reader's attention and conclusions for sustaining his memory.

WHAT NOT TO DO
1. Be tactful in revealing flaws, and be fair in offering praise.
2. Do not play the role of the hypocrite who sugarcoats everything or speaks in vague, unknown tongues.
3. The perfect work of art is yet to be created (although Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Poe, and Weber have come very, very close).
4. Never enter the arena of politics or religion, unless the arts are under attack unjustifiably.
5. Don't expect everyone to agree with your review, and don't reply or retaliate when someone attacks your review.
6. Don't use language that is elitist, full of jargon, or beneath your dignity
7. Accept only the fair market value for your services; no bribes, no favors, no bargains.
8. Don't write every review the same way; variety is indeed the remedy for boredom.

Much confusion and misapplication of the meaning of words like "reporter," "reviewer," "critic," "editor" and "commentator" has come about as a result of overlapping assignments and sloppy news editing. Now seems to be a good time at the beginning of school and the new season of TV, drama, concerts, to "review" the role of "reviewers." It should be noted that the terms "reviewer" and "editor" are quite different from "reporter" and "recorder" in that the first two are interpretations based on opinion, whereas the latter two are fact based and the writer's opinion should be excluded. The word "review" from the French "revoir" means "to see in other senses," whereas to "report" from French/Latin "reporare" means "to serve as a carrier of messages." Hence, the distinction that should be observed in news media is often mixed or ignored in practice.

There are those who argue that a reviewer should not characterize, evaluate, or assess; that he should only present, report, and record the factual details. But as you can see from the definitions above, that defeats the role of a reviewer, reducing him to a recording machine. A reviewer has to compress the details of the performance into a single column (my reviews average about 850 words), and he must selectively mention actors, events, and details, for clearly he can't cover them all. Thus, an important part of the reviewer's job is to establish values and standards in terms of art and its purpose. It is also his job to help readers distinguish quality from the mundane and help them see not only value, but the basis for evaluation. How can an audience learn different types and levels of art if I do not bring my training to bear honestly on the object being reviewed?

A reviewer must make judgements based on comparisons with other arts of like nature from other regions. He per force must evaluate relative to other performers, cities, museums; otherwise the audience is never able to assess the "worth" of the reviewer. He must serve the interest of the public, not the artist, not the advertisers, not the performers, not the company, or theater, or concert hall, or museum, not even the Board of Directors, for they all have vested, self-promotional interests.

As a writer about and for the public, my allegiance is first and foremost to the public. Readers depend upon me to give them my best informed and fair comments of plays, concerts, operas, museums, books, I come across. They expect my review to be honest, balanced, and reasonable in the assessment. "Balanced" is a key word here. A reviewer doesn't want to be all negative, because that surely must be something good to say, But it can't be all peaches and cream either with glowing accolades. This means, of course, that in some cases an actor, director, or performer may incur some negative remarks, and that may hurt. But it is his job to critique, to explain, to assess the performance as well as the audience's reaction to that performance, and not, thereby, to sugar coat or vaguely allude to what he considers flaws or short comings. It is not his purpose to build up the arts in a community, nor is it his function to tear them down. It is, rather, his job to describe and assess what others do to create, build up, or tear down the community arts. Thus a reviewer is by nature a critic.

There are three kinds of generally accepted criticisms -- constructive, destructive, and descriptive. The first two types should be obvious; the last one means the reviewer speaks with a silver, vague tongue, or with no tongue at all -- his words lack substance. In fact, the best known reviewers (mostly in New York) have built their reputations on insightful positive and negative criticism, for readers come to depend on them to tell them where to spend their time and money, when to buy or not buy a book with their last dollar, when to see a good play or to avoid a bad one. Of course he must write the review in the context of its purpose -- are the performers amateur or professional? novices or experienced? little theater or adult theater? And of course he must feel for and treat gently those who may be young or new on stage, in print, or on canvas.

Laura Worsham of The Harbinger is an excellent book reviewer. She is not satisfied with a mere reporting of the plot or facts of a books. She assumes a reader can get the facts for him/herself. Nor is Laura satisfied with glowing accolades, or vague sweeping generalizations empty of substance. Laura's job, then, is to take her readers beyond the obvious facts to another level of realization; and she does it well without appearing snobbish (see her review of Consilence: The Unity of Knowledge Dec. 98 issue, p. 15). This is not to say other reviewers or readers must agree with her. It is to say, rather, that Laura's view is an 'informed," "studied" opinion that should be reckoned with. Her public depends upon her for that "informed" opinion, be it good or bad. (Pick up any New York Times Book Review and notice the different approaches.)

According to Plato, when Socrates is brought to trial and ultimately executed for his critical views of the Athenian Republic, he refers to himself as "the gadfly" (a large horse fly) sent by the gods to show the Republic its flaws and its merits. You need me, argued Socrates, because all the others just tell you what you want to hear, that what you do is always right. I alone tell you where flaws exist that cause republics to crumble. So it is with reviewers who are similar "gadflies." The public reads reviews precisely because they are guides conceived in honesty and absolute objectivity, for who else will honestly and objectively tell the public the truth about itself and about the arts.


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